Winterson’s powerful debut novel

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

I don’t know how I’ve managed to escape reading Winterson’s debut – I’ve read (and loved) her autobiography Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, (reviewed here), and I very much enjoyed the TV adaptation of this book with Geraldine McEwan playing the fearsome mother. I’ve read so much about the book over the years, it felt like a re-read!  So, chosen for our Book Group’s ‘orange’ book, I was very happy to finally read the book itself.

It’s fair to say that if you have read Winterson’s memoir, that sense of déjà vu will be very strong, for there’s not much in the novel that didn’t happen to Jeanette in real life. The Vintage edition I read had a new introduction written by Winterson in 1991, and in it she says it is both autobiographical and not; after all, the girl in the novel is also called Jeanette.

The story is superficially simple – the coming of age story of an adopted girl brought up in an evangelical Lancashire family discovering her different sexuality – however there are layers to it. Winterson describes it as ‘spiral’ in style. Her writing is bold and straight-forward with a satisfying wordiness. Other than Jeanette, the key character is her adoptive mother, an evangelical Christian and would-be missionary. You can get some measure of her from the opening paragraphs:

Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.
She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window.

The novel is structured in sections named for the first eight books in the bible, the Pentateuch + Joshua, Judges and Ruth.  Winterson is clever in how the story spirals through some of the major themes of each book – from the family origins in Genesis, through having to go out to school in Exodus, through being judged in Judges and a feminist interpretation of Ruth.  As for the oranges that Jeanette’s mother gives her, well they’re not apples!

I remember back in the mid 80s when word of mouth finally got Oranges the notice that it deserved, after a quiet first edition produced by an independent press, It won Winterson the Whitbread (now Costa) First Novel Award in 1985 and this sparky author was off – creating a rich body of work in the years since. The challenging narrative of Oranges was spoken of in similar tones to Iain Banks’s debut The Wasp Factory (reviewed here), which had been published the year before. Both are novels that grab you by the throat and don’t let go. Some may be put off by the amount of religion in Oranges, but in order for the Jeanette of the novel to break free and find her own way, needs must; it didn’t bother me, I  find novels that question blind faith and Old Testament thinking fascinating.  A fantastic debut, I loved it. (10/10)

Source: Own copy from the TBR.

Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) Vintage paperback, 240 pages.

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14 thoughts on “Winterson’s powerful debut novel

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I love Winterson’s writing, and don’t know why I didn’t read it back when it first came out – although I was still in the throes of my SF&F mania then, so maybe that was why.

  1. It’s a long time since I read this but I loved its language and it’s power at the time. I’d not known about the publication proximity of both Oranges and Wasp Factory but I see what you mean – like Oranges, The Wasp Factory was a book that was so different to anything else, a real marmite book at the time – I was very much in the ‘absolutely loved it’ camp!

  2. An excellent summary of a very impressive book. I recall being rather stunned by this when I read it a few years ago, all the more so on account of its semi-autobiographical nature. The symbolism in the story was so effective.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      In Winterson’s memoir, we find out much more about her birth mother, who was almost a throw-away character like her father in the novel – more so to concentrate on her and her mother! I loved how the symbolism worked too.

  3. I really disliked this as a teenager and now I can’t remember why! I’m making a list of books I didn’t like as a teenager to re-read and re-assess – I’ll have to add this.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I wouldn’t have liked this as a teenager either – I’d have wanted Jeanette to rebel sooner I expect!

  4. I’ve only read a couple of her children’s novels and, of course, her newspaper articles and commentaries. I’ve kind of avoided this one, though ‘Why be Happy… ‘ is waiting on my tbr shelves, and my leaning is towards ‘Lighthousekeeping’. I think I’ll have ‘So many books’ inscribed on my headstone when I go… 😁 Anyway, I enjoyed this review very much, thanks.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Chris. I remember enjoying her children’s books Tanglewreck and the King of Capri. Weight, her retelling of the Atlas myth was excellent too. But I’ve still got most of her novels in between to read on the shelves! Your epitaph could be dittoed for me too 😀

  5. Lelly says:

    Great review, I echo your sentiments exactly. Loved the TV series too, but wasn’t it Geraldine McEwan who played Mrs Winterson in the TV series? I must say I haven’t enjoyed JW’s subsequent novels as much as OANTOF. Her autobiography was a wonderful read too.

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